The wrap: Oxford United 2 Barnsley 2

There were some predicting that we could fail to pick up a point through most of January and February. Justifiably so, we’ve got a fierce run through to spring.

So, on the face of it, Tuesday’s draw with Barnsley was a pretty decent result; particularly coming off the back of a draw against Fleetwood and the win over Portsmouth.

These results, lifting us just out of the relegation zone, reinforce my belief that we are not a bad side, we just lack numbers. By extension, Karl Robinson is not a bad manager, he just lacks support.

Then he opens his mouth and ruins its all.

I’ve a lot of sympathy for League 1 managers with limited resources during the transfer window. Fans bibble on about the players we should sign, IMMEDIATELY, ignoring trivialities of availability, the will of all those involved or any budget.

But, to be successful you have to be both discrete and planned. Karl Robinson is neither, it seems. Put a microphone under his nose and he’ll tell you who he’s looking at and what state any deal is in. He raises expectations which can only result in disappointment. On Tuesday he implied that the club were ready to spend, only to do nothing of the sort.

Words poured out of his mouth – he talked about ‘women and females’ and how foreign coaches are treated differently. He claimed that the Barnsley manager Daniel Stendel said ‘S.H.I.T’ like a schoolboy dobbing on the big boys.

This is Robinson being open; cut through it all and there’s a lot of sense in there. It’s possible that Stendel swearing in German will be treated differently than if he swore in English. His gibbering about pride in the shirt and the commitment of the fans is what the fans want to hear.

Some of it is wrapped up in some cultural assumptions about scousers. We assume them to be passionate, heart of the sleeve types. Both chirpy and emotional. But if you’re from Oxfordshire, where things are, perhaps, more reserved, it can grate.

He shouldn’t be judged for where he’s from, but he talks himself into trouble. In a club with resources and momentum, his verbal avalanches are, perhaps more tolerable. We’re more likely to enjoy his casual, open nature when the consequences of getting it wrong have less impact. But in a club which needs discipline and focus, where margins of error are much smaller, and where resources don’t appear to be as plentiful as we’d like, he just comes across as panicky and full of excuses.

When this happened earlier in the season, there seemed to be a conscious decision to reign him in a bit. Derek Fazackerley was more visible on the touchline, Robinson stayed back on the bench. It seemed to work and results improved. We’re on an OK run but with difficult games coming up. The margins of error narrow as the season progresses. Maybe they need to try something similar now.

Games of Note: Barnsley

3rd April 2016 – Wembley 2-3

The most golden of generations; a season like we’d never seen before. Derby wins, giant killings and promotion. Why not throw in a trip to Wembley?

11 May 1985 – Home 4-0

The last day of the 1984/85 season, promotion to the top flight had been secured weeks before with a win over Shrewsbury. Things had gone off the boil with consecutive three draws meaning they hadn’t secured the title that they so richly deserved. We needn’t have worried; a 4-0 win saw us crowned champions in what turned out to be Jim Smith’s last game. Well, for 20 years, anyway.

4th May 1997 – Home 5-1

Twelve years and one week after being promoted to the top flight against Barnsley, they returned to The Manor having just done the same. Barnsley fans packed the Cuckoo Lane End singing their signature song – ‘It’s just like watching Brazil’. It was, but then, it was us in yellow.

4 August 2018 – Away 0-4

A new season, a new start, a new squad. So much optimism, so much hope. What could possibly go wrong. Lots, it seems.

3 December 1989 – 2-0 Home

There have been occasions when Oxford and Barnsley have met in less thrilling circumstances. But, this is bloody marvellous; Nick Harris reporting on our 2-0 home win for BBC Look North.

The wrap – Barnsley 4 Oxford United 0, Oxford United 0 Fleetwood Town 2, Oxford United 2 Coventry City 0

I have to confess, I don’t get a buzz from the new season. It disrupts my summer and messes with commitments I had to make before I knew the fixtures. Football in the summer, without a coat, is not football. I want to leave the ground when it’s dark, desperate to get back to the car to put the heating on and thaw my fingers out. Football is my ‘silence’; a routine that allows me to escape from everyday life, I prefer football when we’re deeper into the season.

It wasn’t always like this; when I was young we seemed to always be coming back from holiday when the season started. I remember sitting in the car as we gradually came into range of English radio as games were kicking off. The holiday had ended, but something much better was in its place.

Over the years things have changed. Clubs don’t add a couple of players to their squad anymore; post-Bosman, teams are overhauled, so you have to get used to a load of new players. I keep up with our signings during the summer, but when they turn out for the first game of the season and can barely tell one player from another. Even the kit changes every year now, so each new season can feel like watching a completely different club. As I say, it’s the routine and the constant of the fans that makes football fun, not the novelty of the new season.

Not everyone feels like this, of course, Twitter was buzzing with people who were buzzing about the new season. For them the season burst into life at Oakwell and the heavy defeat to Barnsley. This was followed by the defeat to Fleetwood. Not just Fleetwood, Joey Barton’s Fleetwood. Suddenly we’re bottom of the league and doom was settling in.

The reaction was like we were 15-20 games into the season. Bottom after two games is far from ideal, but nor is it terminal. Nobody wants to lose two games in a row, but it does happen – it just happens to be that these two games are the first two games.

I do think that we didn’t have a great summer; it came together eventually with late signings and Karl Robinson has more than hinted of the upheaval surrounding the new training ground, but the process of gelling the team together starts now, where you’d prefer it to have started on the first day of pre-season training.

The win against Coventry in the League Cup has gave us some rest bite, but as with all cup competitions nowadays, you can’t really judge anything because it’s impossible to know how any team view cup competitions. Under Michael Appleton, every game was treated equally so cup and league games were approached with the same vigour, and mostly the same team. Judging by the number of changes made by Karl Robinson, he’s perhaps taking a more strategic view. It’s not exactly what the fans want to see, but one of the issues Appleton had was his teams running out of steam towards the end of the season – essentially as a result of being too successful in the cups. I’m not convinced the physical tiredness is that big an issue, but the mental fatigue takes its toll. If the objective is promotion or the play-offs, then discounting the cups maybe the best option.

We have a tough start to the season, which is perhaps being overlooked. We play all three teams that came down from the Championship, two away, inside the first month. The season doesn’t really settle down until the middle of September when we face Wycombe, Walsall, Luton and Southend, we can only start to judge the team in October, by which point the squad will be more settled.

Barnsley wrap – Barnsley 3 Oxford United 2

The anxiety started early and unexpectedly. Wembley announced a ‘100% bag check’ and my mind started racing. What did they know? Did ISIS consider the lower league’s showcase final to be a ‘soft target’? I’ve never been that bothered about watching the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, I definitely didn’t want to die doing it.
Then there were the 35,000 Oxford fans travelling down the Chiltern line. Twitter ablaze with ungodly start times; would I be too late leaving when I’d planned? What if I couldn’t get on a train? What if I lost my daughter in the crush? A sense of dread about everything apart from the game itself.
In the end ISIS didn’t attack, we did get on the train and my daughter had the time of her life. The place buzzed in the spring sun. We passed a playground full of children dressed in Barnsley and Oxford shirts. They played together, like hamsters in a cage, oblivious to their rivalries until some Barnsley kids, completely without malice, commandeered a roundabout chanting ‘Oxford BOO’. An anthropologists dream.
It was more like a works outing than a football match. People ate lunch in Prezzo, perused the shopping centre shops and stopped to chat awkwardly with people they only vaguely knew because they happen to sit near each other at home games.
A cup final devoid of tension; while the Milk Cup Final in ’86 was the pinnacle of our history and the play-off final critical to our very survival, this wasn’t even the most important game of the week.
But it was difficult not to be impressed by the mass movement of the yellow army. Reassuring that, though you and I choose to watch Mansfield at home over the Bake Off, many thousands of others are with you in spirit; today they’re here in body.
I met Brinyhoofat the Bobby Moore statue, we bumped into each other with our dads at the Milk Cup Final 30 years ago. Last time it was accidental; this time it was planned; completing some kind of circle. We headed to our seats via escalators, bar code scanners and glass doorways. This isn’t 1986 anymore, this isn’t any kind of football we’ve grown up with.
Oh what a joy, a bank of yellow and blue, a happy, united, contented club. A glorious noise. We see a couple of people wearing Weiner Neustadt t-shirts; what Brinyhoof calls ‘Our Sex Pistols at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall’, one day we’ll all claim to have been there, at the start. But, for now, this, we’re all here for this.
In the stadium the pre-match entertainment is underway, it’s cheesy and choreographed, but absolutely necessary. Wembley is so comfortable it feels like you’re at the theatre, it’s tempting to sit passively and enjoy the show. Something needs to ignite it. There are flags and flames, women in tight tops and short skirts, men in military uniform – an anthropologists dream.
Eventually the players appear, Wembley’s great design flaw is that they come on from the side of the pitch rather than one end as at the old stadium. That epically long walk could break players, this short walk from the side doesn’t have the same effect.
The great unspoken is finally spoken, Jake Wright drops to the bench. It’s been on the cards for weeks, he hasn’t done anything wrong this season, but Chey Dunkley’s form makes him hard to drop. Joe Skarz isn’t fit after a season of sterling service, life just isn’t fair.
We start well, though, looking entirely comfortable. After some probing, Alex MacDonald swings a huge cross over and Callum O’Dowda attacks the ball, beating his man and nodding home. The stadium fills with noise; O’Dowda, one of our own, belts down the flank until he’s caught by his team mates. Modern day footballers are too knowing of the cameras that film them, goal celebrations are choreographed for the TV, but this is visceral and real. If his team mates hadn’t caught him, he’d have ended up in the crowd never to return.
Half-time comes and it’s difficult to imagine being more comfortable in a final at Wembley. There’s none of the grizzly angst of the Play-off final or the shock of the Milk Cup.
My half-time routine was pretty straight forward; a trip to the toilet and then a drink. I have to queue for both. I walk back past groups of people casually drinking pints and plastic cups of wine. As I get back to my seat the players are already out. There are thousands of people still under the concourse as we kick off, it creates an oddly sleepy atmosphere.
And it kills us, Barnsley have to come out positively if they’re to get anything out of the game. We need to be disciplined, we need to slow everything down. Call it inexperience, but Wembley is a big pitch, legs become heavy, particularly after a half-time break. We need to hold out for 15 to 20 minutes, control the game, but that’s not really our game at all. Suddenly everyone looks like they’re wading through treacle.
In a flash we’re 2-1 down and then there’s a moment of magic from Adam Hamill. The game threatened to be a shoot-out between Hamill and Kemar Roofe. Hamill took his moment, Roofe didn’t, and that pretty much made the difference between the two teams. Everything else was equal.
Roofe does make his contribution, providing a perfect cross for Danny Hylton to make it 3-2. In the context of the game, it’s meaningless, but it’s a great moment for the club and players.
Waring and Bowery come on, but we’re missing John Lundstram’s more expansive passing. Ruffels has been excellent but his compact game means the strikers are picking up balls 30-40 yards from goal. Man, it’s such a big pitch.
There is no Potter moment, no Jeremy Charles moment, the game peters out. I’m not sure I wanted extra-time, in the end, you know, because of the trains and ISIS. I wanted to win, I didn’t want to lose our unbeaten Wembley record, particularly not like this, but losing was never going to be a heartbreaker. I just hope that the players recognise it for what it is and that it doesn’t distract them from the real objective of the season. Not just because it’s important, but because we, they, deserve the recognition for what our club has become in the last 12 months.